A series of interviews exploring the influences of some of our favourite artists and clever clogses... who is your Geppetto?
For the third in the series, we'll hear from poet and author Joe Dunthorne. Joe was a guest at Mercy's Wave If You're Really There events in Liverpool in 2008. He also contributed to our latest publication, This Is A Little Book.
What artist / human / thing(s) are you most influenced by?
My Commodore 64.
What is it about it that you find intriguing?
Let me put it like this. You are ten years old.
On the one hand, your Dad, with a heartfelt commendation, has given you his Just William books to read. You could dive in to the adventures of William, Douglas, Henry and Ginger, who call themselves the Outlaws, and meet at the old barn in Farmer Jenks' field.
You could don the galvanised platinum armour of Turrican and gyroscope past giant robotic fish while firing lightning from your cauterised jet-engine arm, thus saving the planet Katakis from destruction. All this while a banging, bleepy almost-techno soundtrack thrums from your portable TV.
My answer was simple. Unless Farmer Jenks has some giant robotic fish in that barn I’m not going near it.
Despite the accusations that computer games rot the mind, I would argue that the Commodore 64 required huge leaps of imagination of its players.
I’d read the description of the game on the back of the box, look at the terrifyingly awesome cover illustration:
and then, with fear, actually play the game:
It was a monumental suspension of disbelief to be convinced by those clunky, flickering eyeball-monsters that might jam in to the side of the screen at any minute.
The other great thing was the breadth of worlds it was possible to inhabit with a computer. In one day I could go from being a humble Paperboy, to delivering ore to non-spherical planets and, before bed, crack some skulls as a Viking adventurer.
Whereas literature seemed to have all sorts of expectations put upon it, about what it ought to be about, how you should respond to it, computer games had no history to worry about: the games were there to be interpreted and enjoyed in any way. In Wonderboy, I was free to choose the skateboard or just go à pied. It may seem like a small decision but it was a fundamental one. Books never offered that choice.
If you were to pick your favourite game, what would it be? Why?
The Shoot Em Up Construction Kit.
It was a simple programme that allowed you to draw your own characters, create your own levels, set the rules for the game, and then play them. For me, this opened up the potential of creativity.
Although the programme was extremely limited, I remember being astounded at the possibilities available I made games about airborne scorpions, games about a family of amorphous blobs, and, most significantly, I made the original Grand Theft Auto, a game called Joyrider. It is, to quote the instruction manual, “an action-packed, extravaganza of carnage across four massive, gore-filled levels.” That’s right – four levels. I must have spent months in my room trying to animate the gorey death of a farmer (Farmer Jenks?) in the gripping final level of Joyrider. It proved such a hit (with John Mernagh, a boy from my class) that I even made a sequel, Joyrider II.
Looking back, it’s clear to me that these games were the first creative output for things going in my life at the time. During the nineties, Swansea was the car crime capital of the UK. At night, I used to get woken by the stolen cars squealing down the steep cobbled hill at the end of my road.
There was a house at the bottom of the hill which, until they put up the concrete bollards, had nicked cars come through its bay windows a couple of times a year.
The most underestimated game?
The Bayeux Tapestry.
This was the first side-scrolling beat-em-up but it never got the recognition it deserved. In these screen shots you can see the development between it and later games, with only slightly better graphics – like Vikings:
The most over-rated?
I don’t like to talk jive about any Commodore 64 games. There is a sacred bond and I will not break it.
What work of yours most bears evidence of this influence?
Well, most obviously, is the short story I wrote that was inspired by the old Text Adventure games that I used to play on the C64 and the Amstrad. In fact, you can still play one of the all-time greatest text adventures online at douglasadams.com.
It was written by Adams and tells roughly the same story as Hitchhiker’s Guide. It’s brilliant.
I wanted to write an interactive story that avoided the traditionally geeky, orc-laden world of computer games and fantasy. So, in this game, the key decision (the eat-me, drink-me moment) is whether to have a green olive or a black one.
You can play it here: http://joedunthorne.com/cyod1_1.html.
Also, one of the things that I learnt about trying to make games on a computer as feeble as the C64 was the pleasures and inventions of working under restriction. The fun was in trying to escape the shackles of the computer’s crappy sound and graphics capabilities.
The French writing movement the OULIPO placed restrictions on their writing as a way of forcing themselves toward creating work that stepped outside of their routinised mindsets. They said they were “Rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape.” George Perec famously wrote La Disparition, a novel that does not use the letter ‘e’. The novel was translated in to English as “A Void” which, I understand, also acts as a mini-review of the book.
With Ross Sutherland and Tim Clare, I worked on a show about the OULIPO that featured Univocalisms (poems with only one vowel) that we’d written. Have a look at my poem that only uses ‘I’, This Is Crispin.
There are also some videos of the show. Here's Ross in action to finish:
Joe is one of the brains behind London literary cabaret, Homework. The next event takes place tomorrow (Wednesday, July 29th) from 7pm at Bethnal Green Working Men's Club. Joe is joined by other Homework residents Chris Hicks, Luke Wright and Ross Sutherland. More details can be found on Facebook.
Joe's debut novel, Submarine, is available on Amazon.